The first man scheduled to be put to death in Ohio since a problematic execution almost three years ago is asking for life without parole. But the state parole board's recommendation may not even matter right away.
43-year-old Ronald Phillips of Akron was sentenced to die for the rape and murder of his girlfriend’s three year old daughter Sheila Marie Evans in 1993, when he was 19. Attorneys for Phillips spent six hours before the parole board restating the case for sparing Phillips, which hinges on his abusive upbringing and his reformation into a better person behind bars. Among those speaking for Phillips was his older half-brother Eddie, in a pre-recorded video. He got emotional when asked what he would tell the parole board about his younger sibling. “He was young. If you would have seen what he’d seen and got abused for all his life – there’s many kids that gets abused but never is nothing stole. I just want you guys to know that my brother’s human and I know he’s sorry for his mistakes,” Eddie Phillips said on the video.
Videos were also shown featuring Phillips’ half-sister Mary and his mother Donna, who died in January. In 2013, Phillips had gotten a delay in his execution when he offered to donate a kidney to his mother, but that donation was ruled out a year later when it was determined that he wouldn’t have time to recover from the transplant surgery before the new execution date.
Both women offered more details of repeated physical, verbal and sexual abuse that Phillips suffered from family members while growing up. Phillips’ attorney Tim Sweeney said the jury never heard these horrible stories, and if they had, it might have made a difference to even one juror – which is all that would be needed to block a death sentence. “This young man did a terrible, inexcusable thing. But we can see why he did that. And we can begin to see that some of this was part of what was embedded in him because of where he came from. He's not the worst of the worst offenders, even though he’s the worst – this crime may have been the worst type of crime, the rape of a three-year-old.”
But when the state took over, a different picture of Phillips and his defense emerged. Brad Gessner is the chief counsel in the Summit County Prosecutor’s Office. He says these claims that Phillips is the product of a violently abusive home is the latest in a series of delay tactics, and he said that pattern won’t stop until Phillips’ death sentence is carried out. He quoted from an article written by a leading death penalty attorney. “If Ronald Phillips gets life without parole, you’re going to see these attacks continue because as a Death Row lawyer who fights to keep his clients alive: ‘I believe life without parole denies the possibility of redemption every bit as much as strapping a murderer to a gurney and filling him with poison’,” Gessner quoted. “This is not about Ronald Phillips. This is about the death penalty and it’s any opportunity, any attack you can make.”
Gessner also took down the case put up by Phillips’ attorneys by highlighting conflicting statements from various family members, friends and experts. And then Gessner turned to the three year old victim, Sheila Marie Evans, who he says hasn’t gotten the justice she deserves and that execution is appropriate. “As the defense has agreed, this crime is the worst of the worst form of this offense. Now, the defense is arguing that he is not the worst offender, and I would take exception with that.” Gessner said. “If you commit the worst of the worst offense, you are that worst offender.”
The parole board will come up with a recommendation on whether to go forward with execution or commute Phillips’ sentence to life in prison. That will go on to the governor on December 9, and he can accept it or reject it. But it might not matter right away. In October, the state applied to use a new three-drug mixture for lethal injection, having found big problems in trying to get the single drug that it had wanted to use for executions after the controversial execution of Dennis McGuire in 2014. McGuire appeared to gasp and choke when he died using a two drug cocktail. Since this newly proposed trio of drugs has never been used in executions before, a legal battle is ahead, and it's just beginning in federal court. And it’s unlikely to conclude in time for Phillips’ scheduled execution date on January 12.